Long-Form Thinking

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James Patterson, by Susan Solie-Patterson – http://www.libarything.com/pic/156833, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15593339

I draw my title from a recent essay by best selling author James Patterson, titled The Literacy of Long-Form Thinking. His essay raises the question of what kind of republic will we be when the average amount that first time voters read is less than ten minutes a day? He is concerned that a tweet-length attention span is inadequate to give careful attention to the complexities that face our nation.

This brought to mind my recent reading of The Wired Soul (reviewed here) and the finding that how we interact with the digital media in our lives literally re-wires our brains, and does so in ways that dispose us to lots of short bursts of disconnected information in tweets, Facebook posts, and scanned articles on screens. There is more and more evidence that these habits of reading make it more difficult for us to give extended attention to a text–whether it be the Bible, a long-form essay, or a book. We are losing our ability to give extended attention to anything.

I wonder if this applies not only to text but to our interactions with people. How many times have you heard the phrase, “cut to the chase?” How many times have you felt that you needed to say something faster, because the other person seemed impatient, distracted, eager to get to the “next” thing, whatever it is. How many times have I (or you) been that impatient person?

Yet how many times are the most important things we want to say to another person reducible to 140 characters? This is even more the case when two people (or parties) cannot see eye to eye about something. Real understanding requires far more communication than a tossed-off slogan. Patterson’s concerns seem pretty valid to me–if we cannot engage in long, attentive conversation where understanding a different point of view, wrestling with complexity and nuance are involved, we might be in real trouble. Consider, for example The Federalist Papers, which lay out in a series of extended arguments, the reasons for the particular form of government that was being proposed in our Constitution. I cannot imagine where we would be if we had to depend on a series of tweets!

So, what is to be done? Patterson, to his credit has put his money where his mouth is, providing grants and scholarships, and funding for reading programs and bookstores. His challenge in his essay is that those of us who recognize the value of the “long-form thinking” involved in being able to sit down with a book and follow an argument should get off our duffs and do something about our functional illiteracy as a culture. He suggests:

“Are you upset about this election? Are you upset about the direction of this society? Then fix it. You’re a reader. You know what reading does for your ability to think things through. Get out there and make this your No. 1 priority. Got a kid? Make her read 20 minutes a day. Got a neighbor who stares at his phone all day? Get him a good book. Volunteer at the library. Volunteer at a school. At the very least, subscribe to a newspaper or magazine that supports long-form journalism and stop reading stuff for free through your screen.”

The last one got me. I have been thinking about subscribing to The Atlantic I’ve clicked on so many good articles from this publication recently and continue to be impressed with the thoughtfulness of the writing I find there. So, before writing this paragraph I decided to subscribe. Apparently there are others who are thinking this way as well. According to a Fortune article, at least 132,000 people have subscribed to the New York Times since the election with other publications like The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post also seeing rises in subscriptions.

Given that I am writing during the holiday season, this sparks some other ideas of what we could do:

  1. If you are taking vacation, take a book along and take at least 20 minutes a day to read uninterrupted, preferably stashing your smartphone somewhere else.
  2. Buy at least one book for each child or grandchild. If appropriate, read it together, snuggled up on a comfy couch or chair. You will never regret it.
  3. Many libraries and bookstores have programs where you can donate a book to a child. Giving the gift of reading to someone else is a great way to celebrate the season.
  4. If you are retired and looking for ways to volunteer, go to your library, or local elementary school. In many cases they have opportunities to help children read.
  5. Buy a book you think your circle of friends would like to read and give it to them. Suggest reading it by a certain date (maybe by the end of January during the winter doldrums) and get together to discuss it. If you like the idea, you could form a book group. If not, you can say you read at least one book in 2017 (something that 28% of the population has not done).
  6. Give a gift subscription to a magazine you like to a friend. It helps them, and helps magazines subscribe as well. And for the digital natives, most magazines offer both print and digital versions with a print subscription.

I think Patterson is right. The trends in the decline of functional literacy are alarming, and the implications even more. It might mean we begin with ourselves. And if we already have cultivated the reading habit, it might mean being creative–and not insufferable–in inviting others to begin to re-wire their brains through the delights of long-form reading with physical texts. We may not have the millions Patterson is putting behind his conviction. But we all have social capital–other people whose lives we influence. We all can do something.
 

 

The Month in Reviews: November 2016

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The authors are brothers whose books were both published in October!

The highlight of this month was the chance to review two very different books by two brothers, both friends, published in the last month. The brothers are Cameron (“Cam”) and Garwood (“Woody”) Anderson. Cameron’s book The Faithful Artist explores the intersection of modern art and Christian faith. Garwood’s book proposes a new way of thinking about Paul’s thinking about salvation, and is fittingly called Paul’s New Perspective. Formerly, all three of us worked together in a collegiate ministry where I worked on a leadership team with Cam and a staff training teaching team with Woody. Both books break new ground in their respective fields and I hope they both get a lot of attention (and sales!).

Beyond these, this was a month of biographies. I read biographies of J.C. Ryle, a late nineteenth century Anglican preacher, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and religious freedom pioneer. Then there was a novelized account of the last three years of the life of abolitionist John Brown. Finally, I had the chance to read a fictional biography of sorts, Marilynne Robinson’s fine novel, Lila, in the Gilead series.

And then there was an eclectic mix of other things–a Swedish crime novel, a book on solar energy, a Reformed view of common grace, and a book exploring spiritual formation practices to counter the distractions and re-wiring of our brains in our modern digital world. Someone recently commented on my diverse array of reviews. For me, it all comes down to wanting to understand the world I live in and to reflect deeply on the spiritual significance of life in our times. I hope these reviews, and the books themselves, help you to do the same.

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Sun and Shadow, Åke Edwardson, translated by Laurie Thompson. New York: Penguin, 2006. DCI Erik Winter, newly bereaved of his father, is confronted with a gruesome double-homicide of two sexual “swingers”, the possibility of involvement within his own ranks, and a pattern of clues that suggests that his partner, pregnant with their first child, may be at risk. (Review)

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Common Grace and the GospelCornelius Van Til (foreward and edited by K. Scott Oliphint). Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015 (2nd edition). A collection of essays by presuppositional theologian Van Til with introduction and annotations by K. Scott Oliphint, articulating Van Til’s understanding of a Reformed doctrine of common grace, engaging views of others in this tradition that differ from his own. (Review)

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Paul’s New Perspective, Garwood P. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.  Argues that both the traditional Protestant perspective and the New Perspective on Paul are each partly right, based on the idea that Paul’s ideas on salvation developed as he wrote over a period of time and addressed different circumstances. (Review)

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LilaMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2014. The story of the unlikely marriage between Lila, a homeless drifter, and Rev. John Ames, a widowed older pastor. (Review)

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J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand AloneIain H. Murray. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016. The biography of this nineteenth century evangelical Anglican, from his early student days, his conversion, the decision to enter ministry, and his growing national reputation and his different assignments, including his last years as the first Bishop of Liverpool. (Review)

roger-williams

Roger Williams and The Creation of the American SoulJohn M. Barry. New York: Viking, 2012. [Publisher link is to paperback edition] A study of the life of Roger Williams focusing on the intellectual influences upon Williams, his journey to Massachusetts, banishment and founding of Rhode Island, and his signal ideas of freedom of conscience and government by consent of the governed. (Review)

tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien: A BiographyHumphrey Carpenter. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014 (originally published 1977).The biography of the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, describing his early life, participation in The Inklings, and his habits of work, scholarship, and how his most famous works came to be written. (Review)

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Harness the SunPhilip Warburg. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015. A survey of the spread of solar power throughout the U.S. telling the stories of how different communities are utilizing this power source, and the technological, industry, and political challenges this growth faces. (Review)

the-insurrectionist

The InsurrectionistHerb Karl. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, forthcoming, February 2017. A fictionalized biography of the last three and a half years of John Brown’s life from the Pottawotamie massacre in “Bloody Kansas” to his raid of the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, ending in his execution in 1859. (Review)

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The Faithful Artist, Cameron J. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Addresses the tensions between the world of modern art and evangelical faith, where opportunities for creative engagement might be found in tensions, and what values might shape the life of one sensing a call to be both faithful Christian and artist. (Review)

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The Wired Soul, Tricia McCary Rhodes. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016. Explores how our communications technology is changing how our minds work in ways that militate against a centered, focused life and introduces practices of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation that help us attend to God in a distracted world. (Review)

Best of the Month: This was a month with a number of books I really liked. But in the end, I will give the nod to Lila. It is a well-crafted parable of grace in the form of a most unlikely marriage that unfolds like the most beautiful rose of spring.

Best Quote of the Month: The idea of being “born again” or “the new birth” has fallen into disrepute and is often mocked. Here is the idea expressed at its best, by J. C. Ryle in J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone:

“The change which our Lord he declares needful to salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one. It is not merely reformation, or amendment, or moral change, or outward alteration of life. It is a thorough change of heart, will, and character. It is a resurrection. It is a new creation. It is a passing from death to life. It is the implanting in our dead hearts of a new principle from above. It is the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new habits of life, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgments, new opinions, new hopes, and new fears. All this and nothing less than this is implied, when our Lord declares we all need a ‘new birth’…. Heaven may be reached without money, or rank, or learning. But it is clear as daylight, if words have any meaning, that no one can enter heaven without a ‘new birth.’ “

Coming Soon: I am in the last hundred pages of Anna Karenina. As I’ve written, this is a much better read when you have some life experience behind you. It was lost on me as a high school student. I thoroughly enjoyed Candace Millard’s Destiny of the Republic on the shooting of James Garfield, and so I’ve gone back to an earlier work, River of Doubt and have been riveted by her account of the harrowing journey Roosevelt and his company of explores endured down the river known by that name. I’ve finally gotten around to Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin, and I find the book confirming my own conviction that racism is a sin we’ve tried to heal lightly in our country. Robert Putnam’s American Grace explores the pluralistic religious environment of our country and perhaps gives one of the earliest warnings of the trends of decline in white evangelicalism, and insight into why groups thrive and decline, and the mosaic of faith that makes up America. I’ve just begun The Church in Exile, a work exploring the theme of exile in the Bible, and proposing that this may in fact be the best way for a church accustomed to privilege but losing it to conceive of itself. I also just received a memoir by Richard Mouw, Adventures in Evangelical Civility which I am looking forward to reading as well as John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism. Both works speak to the needs of our time. I’m also looking forward to reading the concluding installment of a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt that has gotten high praise in reviews I’ve read.

Books are wonderful Christmas gifts for a booklover. There might be something here for your wishlist, or perhaps a good idea for that someone special.

 

 

Review: The Wired Soul

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The Wired Soul, Tricia McCary Rhodes. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016.

Summary: Explores how our communications technology is changing how our minds work in ways that militate against a centered, focused life and introduces practices of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation that help us attend to God in a distracted world.

There is no question that laptop computers, wireless technology, tablets and smartphones, and other electronic devices in our lives have changed the way we live and think. They provide an unprecedented connectedness (during the recent attack at Ohio State, I learned that 150 friends were “safe” in under an hour thanks to a Facebook app). They give us instant access to information and also to consumer opportunities. They also can be a huge source of distraction. The average person checks a smartphone at least 100 times a day. It cuts into productivity, distracts driving, and even interferes with our sleep.

Tricia McCary Rhodes asks the uncomfortable question of how all this affects our spiritual lives and our ability to pay attention to God. Drawing on some of the latest findings in neuroscience, Rhodes writes that this technology, and our use of it literally rewires the neural pathways in our brains. We read differently, we are more easily distracted, we no longer remember things like phone numbers or directions that we once remembered. This has implications both for how we read and reflect upon the scriptures, our ability to slow down, and focus upon and attend to God.

Rhodes draws upon the Benedictine practice of lectio divina and the four most common elements of this practice, to counter the influences of this technology. In each section, she includes not only some basic discussion of the practice, but also exercises that can be done in 15 minutes to an hour, that take us into spiritual practices, indeed alternative liturgies, to use James. K. A. Smith’s terminology, on which she draws, to help us engage with God. These four elements are and the specific practices are:

  • Lectio. Here she focuses on both slow and reflective reading. In the slow reading, she has us focus on a single paragraph that we read and re-read, and then reflect upon. In retentive reading she introduces a method of Bible memorization.
  • Meditatio. The section on meditation focuses on giving our whole-body attention to God through an exercise that combines breathing, simple motion, and words. The exercise on biblical meditation begins with establishing a clear intention, moves to preparation of the heart, and then uses a set of simple questions to reflect upon a biblical text.
  • Oratio. In this section the focus is on prayer. First, she introduces the examen as a way to “pray the texts of our digital lives” and to consider their influence upon us. Then she turns to considering our relationships and the proportion of virtual to real face to face interactions make up our lives. She concludes with encouraging the practice of table conversation over meals.
  • Contemplatio. Reflects a movement from stillness in the presence of God into action shaped by that awareness of God. She offers exercises that help to enter into that place of resting in God, and then to return to that contemplative place throughout an active day.

Rhodes is not a Luddite, urging us to throw away our tablets and smartphones. Some of the exercises include their use and she speaks both of the helpful uses of this technology, and her own struggles with it. Most of all, Rhodes gives us some helpful practices to keep technology in its place, to keep it from becoming, in Neil Postman’s words, technopoly that controls and shapes our way of life. Christ followers want a Christ-shaped, rather than iPhone-shaped life. In a simple, readable format, Rhodes introduces us to some practices and helps us to ask some challenging questions that help us to embrace the life to which Christ calls us in a wired world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Some Thoughts on the Attack at Ohio State

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As some of you may know, my day job is in campus ministry at The Ohio State University. Ever since the Virginia Tech shootings, I’ve been signed up for text alerts in the event something like that were ever to happen. Monday morning I received the alert I hoped I never would see:

Buckeye Alert! Emergency on Columbus Campus: More info soon. Shelter in place/be observant/take action as needed. Public Safety responding.

This was followed by:

Buckeye Alert: Active Shooter on campus. Run Hide Fight. Watts Hall. 19th and College.

As always, there is a haze of conflicting reports as these situations unfold. Early reports were that it was a shooter, and perhaps multiple suspects. Some reports had a suspect fleeing to a nearby parking garage which was surrounded by SWAT and other law enforcement.

At the time, my response was two-fold: pray, and alert students and faculty I know on campus if they hadn’t seen the text alert. Over the next hour, as Facebook set up a safety check-in, I learned that a number of those involved in our ministry were safe. We began to see pictures on the news and in social media of barricaded rooms as students sheltered in place.

Here is what we know as I write: the suspect, a permanent legal resident in the U.S., driving a car registered to a 20 year old Somali man, was shot dead after disregarding officer commands by an OSU police officer on the scene within a minute. The suspect was an 18 year old Somali student who had borrowed the car. Eleven people were wounded, either being struck by the suspect’s car or by a butcher knife wielded by the suspect. It appears he did not use a gun. The wounded were taken to three area hospitals. One was initially reported as critical but all are now stable and expected to recover from their wounds. Around 11 am the shelter in place instruction was lifted but classes have been cancelled at the Columbus campus for the remainder of the day Monday. Much of the north campus classroom area is an active crime scene investigation.

First of all, I have to commend Ohio State. One of their officers was on the scene within a minute and his quick action prevented further attacks. Communication of the threat was almost instantaneous. Also, staff and students are trained how to respond if such events occur and those measures were implemented. The only injuries were those at the scene.

I’ve been impressed by how the university and the religious community have rallied to provide students and staff with opportunities to seek spiritual solace and express care for the victims. President Drake set the right tone when he said, “Days such as these test our spirit as Buckeyes – but together we remain unified in the face of adversity.”

At the same time, I am deeply concerned about how media and social media will play the Somali nationality of the suspect and the means of attack. The suspect was a legal resident of the United States, probably coming here in childhood. It could well be that this is a terror-influenced act (but I would stress it is too early to know), but what concerns me more is the effect this has upon internationals who are already fearful given anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S. and to peaceful Muslim students, some U.S. citizens, with whom there are opportunities for hospitality and witness. Right now there are a record number of internationals studying in the U.S. including at Ohio State. I think we have a unique opportunity to welcome these students, and forge ties of friendship and understanding that could be life-changing.

Campuses are uniquely open places. The world of scholarship and inquiry knows no borders. The chance to study abroad, to learn about another culture up close is vital in our global village and students today will be country leaders tomorrow. But such openness makes them vulnerable, although it was apparent that OSU’s training and communication for staff and students served to protect all those not in the immediate way of the suspect. I’m deeply concerned that our fears for safety will lead to actions that thwart the openness that allows for exploration, encounter, and for ministries like ours, witness across all kinds of cultural boundaries. I hope we can advocate for responses like what we actually saw at Ohio State of vigilance but not fearful retreat behind barriers, that maintains this open place.

I am concerned that people will use the suspect’s ethnic roots or religious background to attack the Somali community or the wider Muslim community in our city or elsewhere. On Facebook, I posted:

“No one judges my character as an American of German descent by the actions of Germany’s leaders in World War 2. Similarly, I will not judge the Somali community of Columbus that has enriched our community because of one young Somali, no matter what his motives.”

Because of the reach of the internet, the possibility of someone “self-radicalizing” under the influence of foreign elements can never be eliminated. No amount of registry or immigration vetting can protect from this, and I can’t help but wonder if anti-immigrant and Muslim rhetoric may even aid and abet “self-radicalizing” by giving further justification for such violent acts.

The truth is that our hospitality might not eliminate these possibilities either. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest associates who broke bread with him. But to choose the course of retreat behind barriers is to retreat from the possibilities of reconciliation, of understanding, of finding ways to make peace across our differences. Our campuses at their best can be places where students meet those who differ greatly from them and learn to build bridges across the differences, acquiring skills they will need when it is not intra-campus, but international relations that are at stake.

Let’s not give up on that because of the tragic decisions of one student.

Review: The Faithful Artist

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The Faithful Artist, Cameron J. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Addresses the tensions between the world of modern art and evangelical faith, where opportunities for creative engagement might be found in tensions, and what values might shape the life of one sensing a call to be both faithful Christian and artist.

The world of modern art, and the world of faith, particularly evangelical Christian faith have often been at odds with, or not even in conversation with each other. This is the challenge the author has wrestled with since his teenage years as an aspiring artist who embraced the evangelical faith in which he was raised. In the introduction, he describes his own struggle with the absence of mentors, the disregard of his church for the visual arts, and the parallel hostility toward religious faith he encountered in the art world.

Much of this work explores these tensions between evangelical faith and modern art. He begins by tracing the post World War Two parallel rise of modern evangelicalism as an effort to “guard the gospel” and modern art, as an effort to throw off the shackles of tradition and the “double consciousness” artists struggled with, often by either muting faith, or lapsing into sentimentalized art appealing to their faith community. He uses My Name is Asher Lev to discuss one of the fundamental challenges facing the aspiring Christian artist in training: the practice of drawing the nude human figure, both central to the development of artistic skill and raising questions of whether this is proper, and deeper questions about the Christian understanding of the body, and our embodied existence. Building on this, he considers the senses, and how we think about this aspect of our embodied existence as we engage the arts.

He then turns to the conflicts between word and image that have been at the heart of some of the conflict between faith and art, whether it is the iconoclastic movements, ancient and modern, that favor word over image, and the inconsistency of a faith community that denounces icons while creating its own versions of these. He points toward a theology of word and image that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the incarnate Word. He also explores the radical doubts about language in post-modern thought and its appropriation by artists, sometimes portraying the deconstruction of language. Anderson gestures toward a theology in which word and image cohere, and for the possibility of meaning.

He also gestures toward the transcendental of beauty in art, once again contended territory, both by artists who seek to lay bare the exploitive ways beauty has been used, and an evangelicalism focused on goodness and truth to the exclusion of beauty. Against the art world’s often legitimate protest about the manipulation of beauty for tawdry or oppressive purposes, Anderson holds out the possibility of being beholders of beauty, and for the artist of faith, the seeing in beauty, even co-mixed with pain, evil, and suffering, the hand of the Creator. He acknowledges that this may be a quixotic, yet for the faithful artist, necessary endeavor.

Anderson contends that these collisions of faith and art may “reveal a third way, a great vista where biblical and theological reflection–especially the doctrines of creation and incarnation–become the wellspring of inspiration.” Each of his chapters includes models of this kind of biblical and theological reflection that serve, not to give definitive answers, but to point other artists who wrestle with the same tensions toward this “third way” in the practice of their art. Indeed, his conclusion is an invitation to both the church and artists to embrace this work, and for artists to give themselves as called people to the work of culture-making and good studio practice. He writes,”

“…the artists whom most of us deem to be successful share a common trait–they do the work. At some point they set romantic ideas about being an artist to the side and commenced doing the artist’s work. Arriving at this place requires one to accept delayed gratification, the awkwardness that is sure to come from making bad art and the reality of negative cash flow. Pushing beyond distraction and discouragement, they accomplished something Herculean–they pushed beyond musing and imagining to establish regular studio practices, to take on habits of making” (p. 252).

Cameron Anderson is executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) and what he offers in this book is nothing less than an analysis of the recent history of the visual arts and the challenges and opportunities for Christians who are called to work in this field. It reflects his lifelong familiarity with the art world and his presence as an leader, teacher and thinker in the Christian community. I might add, both by way of disclosure and appreciation, that I worked closely with Cam in his previous role as national director of InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry, and owe twenty years in a job I love to his influence. I saw parts of an early version of this manuscript, kind of like the blocking in of shapes on a canvas that mark the beginning of a painting. It is a delight to see the finished work, which reflects the deep reflection on faith and art that I had come to appreciate in presentations by Cam, disciplined by extensive research and enriched by years of experience working with visual artists.

[This is the second work in the series Studies in Theology and the Arts. The first volume in the series, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture was reviewed earlier this year at Bob on Books.]

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Small Businesses

communities-largeToday is Small Business Saturday. This effort, started several years ago by with major sponsorship by American Express, promotes an alternative to “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday”, which focus on the big box national retail stores and online sellers respectively. It recognizes that one of the huge assets to our communities are the local small businesses, usually owned and operated by local people, that provide personalized service, distinctive products, and channel jobs and money back into the local economy.

I know. I remember the local small businesses that constituted the fabric of our West Side community growing up. Most were within walking distance of my home, and even as a kid, the people who worked at many of these places knew my name, and I knew theirs. This was true throughout Youngstown. In past posts I’ve written of family grocery stores, restaurants, and neighborhood bars. But these were just the tip of the small business economy in our community. On my corner was Truman’s Dry Cleaning (named after the president, from what I understand). Next to it was a locally owned body shop. You could press the wrinkles out of your clothes and your car in the same block! And next to the body shop, you could buy or learn how to make floral arrangements.

Across Mahoning Avenue from Truman’s was a religious store selling items for the devout. Nearby that was the locally owned garage where my dad took his cars for tune-ups and repairs. Just up the hill on Mahoning Avenue was a veterinarian, and in the next block a Dairy Queen and a Lawson’s dairy store. Across from the vet’s was a store selling burial markers (probably because Calvary Cemetery is just a block west. In the next block west, was the barbershop where I got my hair cut as a kid, and a florist and greenhouse.

Going down the hill were a couple family groceries, Dave’s Appliances, where I bought my first stereo, a beer and wine shop, another garage, several bars, our post office branch. Around the corner on Steel Street was a shoe repair shop. Then there was Gerrick’s Jewelers, where I bought a nice watch for my mom. Across the street was Mahoning Pharmacy, where we used to get all our prescriptions.

I could go on and on. Aside from Dairy Queen and Lawson’s and the post office, these were all locally owned small businesses. As a kid, you didn’t act up because many of the owners knew your parents. And the businesses didn’t rip you off–because they knew your parents!

But along the way someone figured out the idea of “economies of scale” and as our cars and road networks grew, big box department and specialty stores, grocery stores, car repair chains all began to compete for the business we gave these local places. We didn’t know the people selling us the goods and often couldn’t even find someone to help us until we got to the checkout. But it stretched the dollars…and it changed the places we called home from places where we lived…and worked…and shopped, to simply places where we slept.

I know from previous posts that there were once vibrant small business communities scattered throughout the city. I’d love to hear your memories of them. I also discovered from the Shop Small website that there are a number of small businesses still making a go of it around Youngstown. Likewise, I found this article on WFMJ’s site about Small Business Saturday activities in surrounding communities. Spending money at these places not only employs and creates jobs for Youngstowners. More of your money stays in Youngstown rather than going off to corporate America.

If you have shopping plans today, you might take some time to visit a small business, wherever you live. Enjoy the personal service. Get away from the big crowds and traffic jams. I won’t be joining you because I’m off my feet with foot surgery, but I placed an order with the small business bookseller whose logo is on this page. He runs one of the best independent religious bookstores in the country from Dallastown, PA, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania. He makes great book recommendations on his blog, and has service as good as that online company! If you have a good experience at a small business, give them a shout out on Facebook or Twitter. Their business depends on friends telling friends. And all of it builds the communities we love, whether it be Youngstown or wherever we call home.

 

Review: The Insurrectionist

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The InsurrectionistHerb Karl. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, forthcoming, February 2017.

Summary: A fictionalized biography of the last three and a half years of John Brown’s life from the Pottawotamie massacre in “Bloody Kansas” to his raid of the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, ending in his execution in 1859.

John Brown, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, were two northern abolitionists who probably did as much as any, one by the sword, the other by the pen to precipitate the Civil War. Yet Brown remains something of an enigma, considered by many to be a fanatic. He chose violent, vigilante methods when it was necessary to resist the slaveholder element in Kansas and believed that his fight against slavery was God-ordained. Yet he was motivated, according to the pages of this novel, by a Golden Rule ethic of doing to others as you would have them do to you and particularly a concern for the oppressed in bondage.

This new novel tells the story of Brown’s last three and a half years. It begins with the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate, which moved Brown to action. He had heard from his sons in Kansas of the efforts of slaveholders from Missouri to resist Kansas from entering the Union as a free state. After attacks upon “free” settlers, Brown responded with an attack on the Pottawatomie Creek settlement where he killed five pro-slavery men, leading to the bloodiest period of raids and counter raids that left 29 dead in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

The novel then traces Brown’s movements back and forth between Kansas, his farm in North Elba, New York, and trips into Canada to fugitive slave settlements, to his sons and pro-abolitionists in Ohio, where Brown lived for part of his youth (in present day Hudson, Ohio). It recounts various meetings and solicitations with wealthy East Coast abolitionists, and his relationship with Frederick Douglass. It also describes his efforts to gather an “army” to fight slavery, setting up training camps in Iowa, his North Elba farm, and eventually in Maryland, five miles from Harpers Ferry.

The story culminates in the raid of Harpers Ferry with a mere eighteen men. Frederick Douglass had strongly cautioned Brown against this, saying he could get in but that the town was surrounded by hills on all sides, a kind of “steel trap.” On October 16, 1859, he moved into action and seized the three buildings of the arsenal, took hostages and freed slaves and waited, hoping others would join them. He waited too long and word got out to local militia and Federal forces under Colonel Robert E. Lee, who first attacked and succeeded in killing or wounding all but a handful of Brown’s men, including the two sons who had joined him. Eventually Marines assaulted the arsenal, killing or capturing the remainder and freeing the hostages.

The book concludes with Brown’s trial, the guilty verdict, his final visit with his wife, and his execution. It also concludes with the growing realization by Brown that the power of the press to turn him into a martyr and catalyst for the abolitionist cause was even more significant than anything he could do of a para-military nature and his last month was devoted to interviews and letter writing.

Karl gives us a fast-moving account based on the actual history. Brown’s utterances seem consistent his written and recorded utterances. Karl also explores the mind and motivations and influence of Brown–his strong sense of the injustice of slavery, his belief in his call by God to fight slaveholders and to take this fight into the south, coupled by the deep loyalties he engendered in his sons, three of whom died in his efforts, as well as the support he enjoyed from abolitionists who helped by the weapons with which he fought. There was also his disturbing consciousness that words would not be enough to overcome the slaveholder. Only conflict and bloodshed could do this, and to conviction, he joined action. On the morning of his execution, December 2, 1859, he wrote:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Beyond simple civil disobedience, Brown’s life, and this account of it raises the question of can violent resistance to unjust authority ever be warranted? Karl doesn’t answer this, but it is a question that arises with other figures including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who joined a plot to kill Hitler. It is particularly troubling when God is invoked, which Brown did from what seemed the purest of motives.

As I noted in the beginning, Brown’s act contributed to inflaming abolitionist efforts in the North, and stirred slaveholders’ fears in the South. The South formed militias. The North elected Lincoln. And less than two years later, the “very much bloodshed” Brown hesitated to prophesy came. By war’s end, approximately 620,000 combatants died, the costliest war in terms of human life in our history.

Brown seemed a “fringe element” that never attracted very many dedicated followers. But he connected into establishment business men, and with the leaders of abolitionism. We might ask what this means for the present, and our present discords as well. What potential exists for those on the fringes (of left and right) to draw support from and to inflame and embroil others? And what could this mean for us if we do not learn from the lessons of the past and instances from other parts of the world when civil order deteriorates into civil war? This narrative left me pondering all these possibilities.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Thanksgiving in Troubling Times

From both personal conversations and following numerous online conversations, I sense there are many who are deeply troubled by our recent elections–many by the tenor of these elections, some by the outcome, and still others by violent protests by some, and verbal, and sometimes physical attacks on people of color, immigrants, LGBT persons, and those who voted for the President-elect.

As one who ordinarily (sometimes to the annoyance of some family members!) enjoys political conversation, I sense this is a Thanksgiving where it would be well to leave this at the door. I’m just not sure what can be added to the interminable conversation of this past year except to give people indigestion. I’m not proposing Thanksgiving escapism, or dismissing the importance of the continuing concerns people have. It is simply that “to everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) and this is a season for thanksgiving, first of all to the host or whoever has provided the food and space to enjoy a meal together, and for the others gathered around. Anything else is just bad manners.

Beyond this, a few thoughts:

  • Take a social media and news media break. Anything really important will still be around on Monday, and you might have a better sense of proportion to engage it. And as compelling as your insights are to you, it probably has been said.
  • If you are hosting a gathering, you might find some humorous ways to let people know this is a “no politics zone.” Like signs, or the threat that there are no seconds on Mom’s famous recipe stuffing for anyone who talks politics.
  • Do not, I repeat, do not bring your cell phone to the dinner table! Put it on mute and check it only when you are not with real, physical people.
  • Focus on the real people in your life this weekend and the ties that bind you together. True, you may not agree on everything, and sometimes you annoy the heck out of each other. As a mental exercise, try to think of something about that person for which you can give thanks. Try real hard. Working those thankfulness muscles will put you in better condition to do the same for those out there we have to share the same country with.
  • Take time to savor the meal. Silently give thanks for each dish and verbally praise the one who made it. We rush through most dinners. This is one to savor, to enjoy good conversation as we move from appetizers to salads to main courses to desserts. Think of the time it takes to prepare this meal. It shouldn’t be all done in an hour.

It seems to me that it is actually quite a good thing that we have a day dedicated to giving thanks. From the Christian scriptures, the Apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV). Reflecting on, as some families do around the table, what each person is thankful for from the past year is a good exercise. Some have taken it further and come up with a “Thirty Days of Thankfulness” challenge. It may be that it is good to end the day thinking of at least one thing we may give thanks for in each day.

Underlying this is an assumption about the way the world is. Thankfulness assumes that no matter how bad things may seem, goodness wins out in the end. Actually even our complaints about what we think is wrong assumes that there is something that is better, some way that things ought to be. As the old proverb goes, “it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Perhaps that could be a good accompaniment to “thanks-sharing” around the table, a beautiful way to begin or end a special meal.

Review: Harness the Sun

harness-the-sun

Harness the SunPhilip Warburg. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.

Summary: A survey of the spread of solar power throughout the U.S. telling the stories of how different communities are utilizing this power source, and the technological, industry, and political challenges this growth faces.

I’ve had thoughts of installing a solar power array on our roof. We have a south-facing roof that gets lots of sunlight (when the sun is shining in somewhat-cloudy Ohio). Right now, we have a few more years on our current roof, and a few other projects ahead in line. But what I read in this book suggests that this is not a completely crazy idea, particularly if costs continue to drop.

Warburg surveys the different ways solar is being utilized around the country. He begins with his own experience of installing a solar array in his home in Massachusetts. He pointed out something I hadn’t realized–that solar is actually more efficient in cold weather when there is sun. His array has actually provided about 75 percent of his power needs.

He moves on from his personal experiences to the implementation of solar in the commercial world, from ball parks to big box stores. What all these offer are large areas of flat roof surfaces that can be covered with solar arrays. He narrates how communities are implementing solar to move toward a “zero net energy” state, particularly in the sunny west. Perhaps most inspiring, coming from a rustbelt town was how some communities, including Chicago, are using brownfield areas to set up solar arrays, involving far less clean-up than other purposes, and turning unproductive properties into revenue producing assets.

As he talks about the use of desert lands to set up arrays, he discusses the trade-offs that come with any technology, including the use of water to remove desert sand from panels, the impacts on wild-life, particularly in the use of concentrating solar power where an array of miracles are focused on a central point. Bird can literally be fried mid-air. Yet this also needs to be set against how many birds are killed by vehicles each year. There are other trade-offs in setting up solar arrays on Indian lands. On one hand, this is far healthier than coal-fired plants located near some of these lands, and yet other projects including casinos have a much better pay-off.

He also talks about the life-cycle of solar panels, which last 25 to 35 years optimally (some imports have had problems and lasted shorter times). One of the challenges is how to recycle these safely since they utilize some highly toxic materials. Yet it is important to offset these challenges with those of other technologies. Nuclear waste is far more hazardous. The environmental impacts of mining and burning coal and the costs of sequestering emissions also needs to be weighed. And all this brings Warburg to the economic challenges of solar, from its competition with other energy sources to the economic arrangements between power companies and array owners, sometimes individuals.

Whether or not you are convinced (I am but don’t want to argue about it) that anthropogenic (caused by humans) emissions of carbon dioxide are contributing to global warming, the case this book argues makes sense to me. One estimate is that the solar potential of the U.S. is one hundred times our power needs. Rooftop solar alone could provide one-fifth of our power needs. Compared to coal or even natural gas, it is a far “cleaner” power source, which has health impacts as well as environmental impacts. While some solar startups like Solyndra have failed, a number of others have created jobs in manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of arrays. I also like the idea of not being completely reliant on our power company (we’ve nicknamed them Awfully Erratic Power), which primarily generates power from coal.

I would have appreciated some resources (beyond his own experience) for consumers (residential and commercial) contemplating solar. Perhaps that is another book but a chapter or appendix would have been helpful. Overall, I appreciated the highly informative yet balanced survey of the field of solar power. It makes a case that I hope our new administration pays heed to. Our carbon-fuel interests, as powerful as they are, represent only one economic community of interest, and frankly, we risk ceding leadership in this field to other nations if we only heed the interests of the big coal and natural gas. In my mind, that wouldn’t be so great.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Great?

lets_make_america_great_again_buttonOur president-elect is not the first to use the slogan “make America great again.” Ronald Reagan used it in 1980 when we were at the height of stagflation, energy crisis, unemployment, an Iranian hostage crisis, and a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. I’m not going to discuss whether this is a similar time, which I think would be a hopelessly futile argument. What I want to explore is an observation Jon Stewart made in an interview with Charlie Rose. He noted that no one ever asked the president-elect “what makes America great?” He went on to observe that what many might understand is that America is in a competition for greatness rather than America’s greatness being a greatness of character connected with its values.

My hunch is that for many people, it is simpler. America is great if we have jobs and feel safe. Even here, the question of our character arises. Do we want America to be great on these terms just for me, or for those like me? Do we want an America where all of its people, from various social classes, and religious beliefs, and countries of origin, and racial identities, and gender identities and sexual orientations to have the opportunity for good work in a country where they feel safe from attack from others? Do we want this kind of America for those with whom we deeply differ?

That seems consistent with the kind of greatness Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence when he said,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [meaning people] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jefferson was contending for a country where the basic equality of people was recognized simply because they were human beings, and that this was based not in some particular characteristic they had, but simply that they were created. “Inalienable” means that nothing can, or ought be done to remove these rights from the possessor. Justice in such a country always protects these rights and brings sanction against any who would impair a person’s life, liberty or happiness.

We have not always lived up to this aspiration, yet I think have always been haunted by it. Jefferson, himself a slaveholder who wanted to but never did free his slaves, confessed that the news of the disputes over admitting Missouri to the Union as a slave state came “like a fire bell in the night.” We stole land from the Native people who preceded us here. We withheld suffrage from women. Yet we’ve been haunted by Jefferson’s words from the Declaration. We elected an African-American president and nearly elected a woman to the presidency. In fear, we interned over 100,000 Japanese, stripping them of their property during World War II. In 1988 we apologized and compensated the families of those interned. We’ve boasted of our nation as a nation of immigrants and yet barred our borders, humiliated those who we do permit to come, and then belatedly, we celebrate the ways they have enriched the fabric of our national life. We betray our deepest principles only for them to come back and haunt us.

The other form of greatness Stewart talked about was the idea of greatness as a competition — American dominance in the world, where we control resources, trade, and project our military might into every corner of the world, thwarting others with similar pretensions. Yet such dominance comes at a price, not only in making enemies of others disadvantaged by our dominance, but in the sheer cost of maintaining that dominance, of which our national debt of $20 trillion is but one symptom.

Yet our values haunt us even here. Our claim that all are created equal and have inalienable rights extends far beyond our borders. It gives hope to democracy movements around the world. And yet we also have to face the troubling question of whether our policies and practices around the world have indeed affirmed the equality of others or treated them as lesser beings. Can we possibly be great if we make others less?

The question before us all is whether we will act in ways that betray our deepest principles, leaving us yet more haunting regrets which must be addressed by a future generation? Or will we as a people rise to the vision of greatness that has always inspired us at our best, and expect nothing less of our leaders?